History of St. Patrick’s Day


He was born it seems in the Severn Valley in southwest England, though claims have been made that he was born in Wales or Scotland. In any case, he was British, not Irish. He was doubtless educated in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain under a Christian influence with a reverence for the Roman Empire, of which he was a citizen. His father was a landowner, and together with his family, he lived on their estate. At the age of sixteen, when he claimed he “did not then know the true God,” he was carried off by a band of Irish marauders. Irish tradition says he tended the herds of a chieftain by the name of Milchu in County Antrim. His bondage lasted for six years, during which time, as he wrote, “turned with all my heart to the Lord my God.”


He fled 200 miles to the coast of Wicklow in eastern Ireland and encountered a ship engaged in the export of Irish wolf-dogs. After three days at sea, the traders landed, probably on the west coast of Gaul, and journeyed twenty-eight days through the “desert.” At the end of two months, Patrick parted company with his companions and spent a few years in the monastery on the island of Lerins off the coast of southern France. After returning home from the Mediterranean, the idea of missionary enterprise in Ireland came to him. He seems to have proceeded to Auxerre in north-central France, where he was ordained by Bishop Amator and spent at least fourteen years there. But he felt called to Ireland. In his book Confession, he recounted:

Return to Ireland

Arriving back in Ireland in perhaps 432, Patrick was both an evangelist of the gospel of Jesus and an organizer of the faithful. Patrick converted the Irish, who practiced at that time a type of Celtic polytheism. He battled heresy as well as engaged in trials of skill against Druids. There is some evidence that Patrick traveled to Rome around 441–443 and brought back with him some valuable relics. On his return, he founded the church and monastery of Armagh in Northern Ireland.


In the twenty-eight years of his ministry in Ireland, Patrick planted around 700 churches and ordained about a thousand priests. Among the 150 tribes throughout Ireland, thirty to forty of them became substantially Christian through the work of Patrick and his followers. Intertribal warfare decreased during his lifetime. Patrick himself was the first to crusade against slavery publicly. During or shortly after his life, the Irish slave trade came to a halt.

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
St. Patrick’s baptistry, Dublin


Other legends report him ridding Ireland of snakes, though it is unlikely that post-ice age Ireland had any snakes. For another view on this story of the snakes, see my three articles on the history of St. Patrick associated with the west of Ireland at Croagh Patrick in County Mayo on Reek Sunday at this link.


Writer and technologist. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, and pop culture. billpetro.com @billpetro

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